Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cake Icing and Climbing Ropes: the Physics of Curling Threads

A stream of honey on toast, a line of cake icing, and a cascading climbing rope all produce similar curlicues and coils as they fall. More than merely decorative, these curls are used to make nonwoven fabrics such as felt, yet are something to be avoided when laying down underwater fiber-optic cables.

Many experiments have studied the simple case of a viscous thread falling onto a moving conveyer belt, but until now the physics of how the curls form was a mystery.

Simulations of viscous thread patterns. Image courtesy of Pierre-Thomas Brun, MIT

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Monday, March 30, 2015

'Picturing' Words Makes Faster Readers

Originally published: Mar 25 2015 - 10:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Jyoti Madhusoodanan, Contributor

(Inside Science) – "Agua" is water, "pan" is bread, "cerveza" is beer. Exams are done and bags packed for spring break, but vacationing students (and snowbirds, too) are still likely to be reading new words as they travel to clear skies and sunny beaches. As a word is read, it grows increasingly familiar. Eventually, a part of the reader's brain turns the now-familiar string of letters and syllables into a pattern.

Rather than process each letter separately, our brains store the spelling of a familiar word as an image or pattern, according to the results of a study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Image credit: schani via flickr | http://bit.ly/1FFHF1V
Rights information: http://bit.ly/1dWcOPS

The study supports the idea that when we learn a new word visually – by reading it rather than hearing it spoken aloud – a small part of the brain, located behind the left ear, creates a mental image of the word. Instead of remembering it as a string of letters or syllables, this region, called the visual word form area, gets trained to recognize the entire word as a pattern, forming a "visual dictionary" of our vocabulary. Representing written words in this way helps us recognize them more easily – and read faster.
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Friday, March 27, 2015

Space Privatization, Tourism And Morals

Image credit: Mollenborg via flickr | http://bit.ly/1xvH3cJ
Rights information: http://bit.ly/NL51dk
Novel technologies, innovative engineering and breathtaking discoveries could be the story of the next 100 years of space exploration. But space travel involves more than math, telescopes and rovers according to the speakers at a session at last month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. Modern space exploration mixes together governments and private companies, science and ethics, promise and possibilities.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Physics Life Hack Number 2 - Makeshift Firestarter

A simple way to start a fire using the physics of electricity
Let's suppose you're out camping. It's damp and cold and you need to start a fire in a hurry. But alas the matches are wet and impossible to light!

Here's a quick and simple alternative that uses the power of electricity and two items which you might just have laying around anyway: a battery and a gum wrapper. Seen it before? Keep reading to find out the physics behind the hack.

Credit: Cropped image from Martin Cathrae via flickr

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Podcast: How Robocats Land on Their Feet

The physics of “cat-turning” has been a subject of fascination for hundreds of years, in part because a cat’s almost uncanny ability to land on its feet seems, at first glance, to violate the conservation of angular momentum.

“It sounds like a paradox when you first talk about it,” says Dr. Will Robertson of the University of Adelaide. “Obviously when the cat is falling, there’s no one else helping it to flip over in the air.”

Images of a falling cat published in Nature in 1894.
Image Credit: Nature via Wikimedia Commons

Robertson and his students have designed a cat-like robot to mimic one of the mechanisms used by real cats to reorient themselves in free fall. The trick is to consider the cat not as a rigid body, but as “lots of rigid bodies all chained together. So when we consider it as a whole, everything internal to the cat can do its own thing so long as the overall angular momentum remains constant.”

Image Credit: Ben Shields et al./University of Adelaide

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"The Happiest Thought of My Life": 100 Years of General Relativity

One hundred years ago this year, Einstein first published his theory of general relativity. This theory fundamentally changed how physicists think about the universe and is thoroughly embedded in the everyday technologies we rely on here on Earth.

In tribute, the talent behind Science Magazine created a wonderful interactive comic that describes the key idea behind general relativity — that space and time warp around massive objects, leading to the "force" we call gravity. Click on this image to view the comic, or follow the link here.

Click to view an interactive comic on general relativity, featuring superhero Einstein!
Credit: Screenshot from Science Magazine's comic.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Simple Test May Detect Toxic Drugs Faster

Originally published: Mar 20 2015 - 2:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Ben P. Stein, Director

(Inside Science) -- Testing whether a drug is safe and effective usually takes many years and millions of dollars. Now, researchers have discovered a surprisingly simple method that could quickly and inexpensively weed out many toxic drugs early in the testing process. The test simply explores how much a drug alters a cell's outer covering, or membrane.

Pharmaceutical companies go to great lengths to find out if a drug is toxic to humans. After test tube and animal trials, researchers move to trials with people. Even human trials, however, don’t always catch drugs that have toxic or unexpected effects on some people.

Image credit: motorolka via shutterstock | http://shutr.bz/19FdUBc

Inside The Cell

Researchers from the Weill Cornell Medical College and Rockefeller University, both in New York City, have developed a simple method that successfully flagged more than half the toxic drugs they tested. They presented their results at last month's annual meeting of the Biophysical Society in Baltimore.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Physics Life Hack Number 1 - Hack Your Eyes

Mathlete sees clearly with this physics life hack
A simple trick can help you see clearly  - with physics!

Age has not been kind to my eyesight or my memory. That means that while I now need glasses to correct for the farsightedness of the increasingly inflexible lenses in my eyes, I often forget where I put them (the glasses, not my eyes). That can be a real problem for someone whose entire job consists of reading.

Fortunately, we at Physics Buzz would like to share a life hack for all the optically challenged and forgetful folk like me.

If you don't have glasses handy, you can significantly improve your vision with this cool manuever demonstrated by Physics Buzz's own blogger, Mathlete.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Children Learn Cursive by Teaching Robots

Training 2-foot robot improves 6- to 8-year-olds’ handwriting skills.

Image credit: Images courtesy of EPFL
Rights information: EPFL

Originally published: Mar 18 2015 - 10:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) – A team of Swiss and Portuguese scientists has developed a "learning by teaching" program intended to help children improve their handwriting skills by teaching robots to write letters of the alphabet.

In preliminary studies of the prototype system, elementary school children starting to learn cursive script successfully engaged with a small humanoid robot and improved the robot's handwriting to a level that satisfied the children.

The next step will quantify the impact of those interactions on the children's handwriting.

Séverin Lemaignan, a member of Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (abbreviated in French as EPFL) outlined the group's philosophy at the Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Portland, Oregon this month.

"Get a child-proof robot to write badly," he explained. "Then make it able to learn with the help of children."

Essentially, Lemaignan added, "the goal is to provide a tool for teachers that is given a new role in the classroom – that of a student who knows even less than the slowest student in the class."

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Podcast: Manhattan Project Historical Park

In 1997, when Cindy Kelly learned of the impending demolition of the V Site at Los Alamos, the cluster of wooden structures in which the plutonium bomb detonated in the first nuclear test was assembled, she acted quickly. Leaving her position at the Department of Energy in 2000, she founded the Atomic Heritage Foundation to raise awareness and gather partners to preserve the Manhattan Project sites.

The partially assembled “Gadget” atop its 100-ft. tower prior to the Trinity Test.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

Fifteen years later, these efforts have paid off, as Congress passed and the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 19, 2014. The NDAA, which sets the budget for the Department of Defense each year, contained a special provision this time around to authorize a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sights and Sounds from a NASA Rocket Launch

Last Thursday I reported on the launch of a new quad of NASA satellites, called the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS), which are designed to measure the dynamics of the Earth's magnetic field and a poorly-understood process called magnetic reconnection.

I was able to witness the launch live from a few miles south of the launch pad and today bring you some of the sights, the sounds, and even a little bit of the physics of that experience.

NASA's MMS spacecraft launches on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 12th, 2015 at 10:44 PM EST. Credit: NASA via flickr

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Monday, March 16, 2015

British Spider Spins Unusual Web

Originally published: Mar 10 2015 - 12:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) – A type of spider commonly found in British retail nurseries has a unique way of spinning its web, according to research by a team of arachnid specialists.

The spider, whose formal name is Uloborus plumipes, starts by spinning silk filaments much thinner than those created by other spiders. Then, instead of relying only on the sticky, glue-like substance lining the silk to ensnare its prey, this spider charges the filaments electrostatically by combing them vigorously with its back legs.

The team at Oxford University's Oxford Silk Group that observed the details of the unusual process hopes to use the understanding of the process to develop improved materials.

Image credit: Philippe Teuwen via flickr | http://bit.ly/1xaO0Kk
Rights information: http://bit.ly/1dsePQq

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Global Warming Experts Predict 50% More Lightning

Every day around the world, lightning strikes the ground about 10 times per second.
That's nearly one million strikes a day!
In the U.S. there are 20 million strikes on average every year, and now David Romps, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California Berkeley, says we can expect to see that number grow in the coming years.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Live from Cape Canaveral: NASA Launches a Quad of Magnetic Field Satellites Tonight

This evening at 10:44 PM EST, NASA will launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is a group of four satellites which will fly in tetrahedron formation, measuring the magnetic field around the Earth and looking for occasional "magnetic explosions" called magnetic reconnections. I'll be attending the launch and reporting back next Tuesday with images and video. For now, keep reading to find out more about the key science this quad satellites hopes to complete while in orbit and tune in to NASA TV tonight to watch the launch live.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Podcast: Bird Compasses

Some migratory birds fly thousands of miles across the planet to find warm climates in the winter without the use of GPS devices or detailed maps. In order to complete this journey they do have one trick up their wing, they can naturally sense the Earth's magnetic field and tell which way is north. This week on the podcast, how scientists are getting closer than ever to decoding the secrets of this innate trait.

A flock of barnacle geese over Finland migrating in the fall.
Image:Thermos via Wikimedia Commons

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Science of a Piezoelectric Violin

A futuristic, 3D-printed violin is making its musical debut next month during the New York City 3D Print Week. The sound it creates promises to be unearthly — instead of the traditional vibrating strings of an acoustic violin, this instrument is piezoelectric, which means applied pressure is converted directly into an electric signal. This electric signal is then amplified and converted into sound through a speaker.

2-String piezoelectric violin. Credit: MONAD Studio

The violin is a prototype created by MONAD Studio, an architecture and design practice headed by Eric Goldemberg and Veronica Zalcberg, in collaboration with musician Scott Hall.

As a violinist and a physicist, I was curious to find out more about how the instrument worked. The studio website doesn't provide many technical details, so I did a bit more research on how piezoelectric sound works.

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Monday, March 09, 2015

Global Warming Experts Predict 50% More Lightning

Originally published: Mar 6 2015 - 1:45pm, Inside Science TV
By: Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science TV) – Every day around the world, lightning strikes the ground about 10 times per second.

That's nearly one million strikes a day!

In the U.S. there are 20 million strikes on average every year, and now David Romps, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California Berkeley, says we can expect to see that number grow in the coming years.

“What we find by looking in the climate models is that on average they’re predicting a 50 percent increase in the amount of lightning that you get in the United States, during this century, the 21st century," said Romps.

And the cause?
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Friday, March 06, 2015

Zombies, Lasers, Jungle Gyms for Cells, and a Rockin' Sing-along at the Biggest Gathering of Physicists of the Year

For five jam-packed days, physicists from around the world gathered in San Antonio, Texas to share their research with colleagues. The American Physical Society's annual March Meeting featured over 8,600 presentations and posters, and brought together more than 10,000 physicists and physics students.

Most of the talks were highly technical, and of interest only to people deeply involved in their respective subjects. But others were appealing to people beyond the physics community. Here are a few stories about the March Meeting talks that you might spot in recent news outlets.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

How Do Mussels Stick to Wet Rocks?

Try sticking a Band-Aid to wet skin and you'll quickly realize that everyday glues are no match for wet surfaces. Mussels, on the other hand, are masters of holding fast to wet rocks, piers, and even to each other. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara are studying these aquatic creatures to understand what makes them so sticky and hopefully use them as inspiration for creating synthetic wet adhesives.

Mussel with byssus threads and disk-like
plaques binding it to the rock.
Credit: Brocken Inaglory via
Wikimedia commons
"The mussel foot protein is the champion of adhesion in the animal world," said Emmanouela Filippidi, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbara, in a press conference yesterday at the APS March Meeting. She said individual proteins have an adhesion strength of 15 mJ/m2, which describes the amount of energy per unit area that they can withstand, and is only a few times smaller than our best man-made glues. Unlike our synthetic glues, which usually must be applied in very dry conditions, the mussel can bond to a variety of wet surfaces, even those that are dirty, relatively quickly.

In the space of about three minutes, mussels can attach to a surface by using their foot organ to secrete so-called byssus threads that are tough and long-lasting, remaining on the rock even if the mussel goes away.

Filippidi wants to understand how the plaque at the end of the threads can be so sticky. From high-resolution images of the plaque interior and from experimental force tests on living mussels in a lab, it seems that the plaque protein structure is key to its incredible binding power. Filippidi measured a total plaque adhesion of up to 15,000,000 mJ/m2, thanks to the collective action of all the individual proteins.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Podcast: Supernova Neutrinos

Supernovae are the swan song of giant stars. These cosmic cataclysms are tremendous explosions lasting a few weeks and bright enough to outshine entire galaxies. But the light and heat that astronomers see with telescopes is make up only about one percent of what's happening. Mostly they produce a deluge of neutrinos, the small, ghostly particles that barely interact with normal matter. This week on the Physics CentralPodcast, how neutrinos are key to unlocking the secrets of these interstellar explosions.

An artist's rendering of a supernova.
Image: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Unnatural Properties of a Designer "Sponge"

A rubber sheet with weird properties, held by Bastiaan Florijn of Leiden University. Credit: Mike Lucibella
Nearly 10,000 physicists have descended on San Antonio this week for the annual American Physical Society March Meeting, the largest meeting of professional physicists in the world. The sheer scale of simultaneous talks is overwhelming and the convention center is so vast that many people are actually running from talk to talk.

Bastiaan Florijn at APS March Meeting.
Credit: Mike Lucibella
In this maze of new developments, I caught up with Bastiaan Florijn, a physicist at Leiden University in the final year of his PhD. He and his group led by Martin van Hecke have made something that looks like an extra-holey pink sponge but is in fact the first programmable "metamaterial".

A metamaterial is something that is carefully engineered to have unique properties that are not often found in nature. This could be a naturally-brittle material that is built, folded, or cut in such a way to become elastic. Or a sound-absorbing material that is tuned to only absorb kinds of sounds. The key idea is that it is the structure, not the type of material (e.g. rubber, metal, or wood) that controls the mechanical properties of the material.

In Florijn's case, he wanted to make a material that could buckle under pressure in a controlled way, and bounce back to its original shape afterwards. This could be useful in creating car bumpers that squish and absorb energy in a collision, but can return to their pristine state afterwards.

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